Monday, March 23, 2015

The Real TRANSPARENT

It’s the latest binge-watching obsession for Derek and me.  After the kids are in bed, we cue up the next episode of Transparent.  Each episode compels you relentlessly to the next, resulting in some unintentional late nights for us, and I suppose the pleasure would be guilty if the show weren’t so beautifully written and executed.   The cherry on top is the ever-talented and lovable Jeffrey Tambor in the lead role of Maura Pfefferman, whose late-in-life journey into womanhood is beset on all sides by her three agenda-driven grown children.

But what does the journey look like for a real transgender parent, specifically, one whose transition takes place while the children are still young and living in the home?  How far will someone go to keep their child away from what they perceive as not a “normal” parent?  In the light that finally shines on a person who has successfully transitioned to the body and life in which they feel the most comfortable, is there a darkness of discrimination that must follow?  Specifically, does the person still have the right to be a parent?

Let me tell you a true story about a real Transparent named Jessica Lynn.  I began interviewing Jessica with the hopes of getting some background for a character in the novel I was working on.  I was so moved and outraged by what she told me that I decided to put the novel on hold and write a screenplay about her life.  What follows is part of her story.


****

Jessica Lynn was born Jeffrey Alan Butterworth in Tarzana, California.  A healthy boy by all accounts except for one major problem, a birth defect as she calls it:  Jeff was painfully and profoundly uncomfortable in his own body from an early age and secretly longed, more than anything, to be female.

Jeff’s parents, especially his mother Sheila, sensed something was not right with their child.  When Jeff was five years old, Sheila took him to be evaluated by a specialist in sexual psychology at UCLA, who told Jeff’s parents that society makes a person’s gender and not to discuss the issue with their son; simply raise him as a boy and he will eventually become a boy.

Sadly, this was not to be the case.  Jeff spent his childhood and early twenties tortured by feelings of not being “right” and of living a lie.  At the age of seven, he tried unsuccessfully to saw off his own penis with a razor.  At the age of thirteen, he discovered he could medicate away these tormenting feelings with alcohol and drugs, which he used in excess to relieve the pain.  He attempted suicide nine times.

Finally, at the age of 23, Jeff’s mother had a desperate heart-to-heart with her child.  She told him she knew that he had always secretly wanted to be a girl.  She told him about the specialist from UCLA, and that they thought they had done the right thing as parents by keeping their knowledge of his deep unhappiness away from young Jeff.  She told Jeff they had gone so far as to put in for a transfer at work in order to move to a different area and change Jeff’s name, raise him as a girl.  But in the end they had followed the specialist’s erroneous advice.  “This is what we have to do now,” she told him.  “You need to be happy.  Your father and I will be with you through the whole journey.”

It was during this time of planning his transition and saving for the requisite surgeries to become his true gender that he met a woman named Rachel.  Rachel actively pursued Jeff and the two began a relationship.  He was not attracted to women, but loved the company of women and had fun with Rachel.  He eventually confided his secret to her and she seemed unfazed, going so far as to go shopping with him for women’s clothing and shoes, helping him with his make-up so he could dress as a woman on occasion.

Rachel became pregnant with Jeff’s child and the two married in 1991, then had another son, Bradley, two years later.  Jeff still planned to transition to female, but had to put those plans on hold with the birth of his children.  He adored them, and Rachel didn’t mind when Jeff would dress in women’s clothing on occasion.  It seemed this would have to be the arrangement for the time.

Though Rachel had seemed initially supportive of Jeff’s innermost desires and plans to transition, she grew tired of their unconventional arrangement and filed for divorce in 1996.  The two shared custody of their two boys and Jeff began the double life of a man who presents as a woman part of the time.  While he was with his children, he was Daddy.  When the children were with their mother, he was Jessica, dressed in women’s clothing and make-up, and frequented transgender clubs and events.

One Christmas in 1998, Jeff discovered through his children that they had no Christmas tree at their mom’s house, so Jeff brought one over and spent the night.

Rachel became pregnant a third time and another son, we’ll call him Clayton, was born.  Jeff and Rachel’s efforts at cohabiting for the sake of the children again failed, launching a custody battle that lasted several years.  Rachel, through her attorney, demanded a full psychiatric evaluation of the family, during which she admitted to the evaluator that she had known of Jeff’s desire to become a woman before they were even married.

In 2006 when the judge rendered the verdict in the case, he stated he had never seen such a good and devoted father, granting Jeff full custody of Jeffrey Jr., Bradley and Clayton.

Now a single father raising three boys in 2007, Jeff resumed plans to complete his transition to become female.  The economy tanked and he lost his home to foreclosure.  He and Rachel began talking again about working something out so that Jeff could transition and Rachel could have time with the kids.  They got a place together in the California Central Valley and Jeff financed Rachel’s way through school to become a dental hygienist so she could attain a reliable career.  Once she completed school and Jeffrey Jr. completed high school, the two agreed that Rachel would take the boys to Allen, Texas to live with her sister so that Jeff could complete the sex change surgeries.  He would then reunite with his children and move them back to California.

Rachel asked Jeff to sign over parental rights to their youngest child, but Jeff refused, asserting that Clayton would learn when he was old enough to understand that his father was transitioning from male to female.  The two older boys knew of their father’s plans and offered support.  Jeff Jr. offered to come back with him to California to help during the transition; Bradley asserted “You’re still my dad and I love you no matter what.”

Now it was time to get down to the business of surgeries.  There was the Trache Shave, the breast implants, the Genital Reassignment Surgery, and later, the vocal chord surgery to lighten the voice.  Then in September of 2010 on the way out of the hospital in Trinidad, Colorado, the surgeon’s assistant handed Jeff a letter stating that Jessica Lynn, formerly Jeffrey Alan Butterworth, had completed her transition and was now, according to the United States government, 100% female.  She was overjoyed with her new body and her new life.  At the age of 45, she finally felt normal, whole.  She felt at peace with herself.  It was time to reunite with all three of her kids.

During the period of the multiple sex change surgeries and ensuing recoveries, Jessica had been in constant phone contact with all three of her sons.  She and Rachel had agreed that they would tell Clayton of his father’s transition when they were certain he was mature enough to comprehend and deal with the news.  He was now twelve years old, and it was time.  Phone calls to Rachel to work out a plan to inform Clayton about their father becoming a woman revealed that Rachel had now had quite a change of heart.  She called Jessica a “flaming faggot” and stated that she should “burn in hell.”  Jessica’s subsequent attempts to contact Rachel by phone, text and e-mail went unreturned, and Rachel stopped allowing Jessica phone contact with Clayton.  A month later, Jessica received a notice from the District Court of Collin County, Texas, stating that Rachel was filing for complete termination of Jessica’s parental rights.

Jessica was appalled.  How could this happen?  She had wanted to wait until the right time to tell her son of her sex change for his own psychological well-being.  Now was finally the right time and she missed him and his brother terribly.  How could removing the child’s parent entirely be in the child’s best interest?

She immediately set about finding a qualified LGBT-friendly lawyer.  She flew to Texas for the hearing and petitioned to be allowed to see her child since she was still legally the parent who had full custody of all three children.  The court responded by ordering Jessica to receive yet another full psychological evaluation performed by a court-appointed doctor.  She again traveled from California to Texas to complete the evaluation.

The evaluation involved multiple standard psychological tests and a barrage of invasive questions.  Jessica maintained an open and forthcoming position.  This was, after all, about what was best for Clayton.  Rachel and the two older boys Jeffrey Jr. and Bradley were interviewed, as well as multiple friends and witnesses.  In the end, the evaluator saw through the drivel and stated for the court in his Forensic Psychological Evaluation, “Concerns about parenting neglect by Ms. Lynn were not substantiated by the information gathered in this evaluation.  On the contrary, collateral sources describe Ms. Lynn as a devoted, conscientious and caring parent.  It is recommended that Ms. Lynn [seek] a mental health professional during the reunification process to assist her with appropriate responses toward Clayton.”

You would think that would be the end of the story.  That Jessica would be allowed to reunite with her son, inform him of her corrected birth defect, and live happily ever after.  But to quote Louise in the movie Thelma and Louise, “We don’t live in that kind of world, Thelma!”  Rachel, through her attorney, disputed the psychological evaluation claiming it was biased, something she was within her rights to do, even though the court had selected the evaluator.

Jessica’s attorney told her it would cost her approximately $100,000 to even be allowed to speak to her son again, and he asked for another $10,000 retainer.  Jessica was out of money at this point, and decided to represent herself.  She had two positive psychological evaluations from two different states in her favor, a full custody order, and phone records and letters proving constant contact between herself and her sons during her transition.

She appeared in court acting as her own attorney, along with her oldest son Jeffrey Jr., to plead with the judge to allow her and Jeffrey Jr. to have contact with young Clayton (Jeffrey Jr.’s own mother had shunned him after his allegiance to his father and would no longer allow contact between him and his little brother).  The psychological evaluation that the judge himself had ordered (under threat of jail time, mind you) was not allowed in the case.  The previous psychological evaluation performed in California was deemed not relevant to the case.  The phone records listing the myriad of phone calls between Jessica and Clayton were not allowed, and neither were handwritten correspondence between Clayton and his father.  In the end, the judge told Jessica to go back to California and wait for his decision.

Four days later, the unfathomable happened:  the Texas court had taken away all of Jessica’s parental rights to her youngest child Clayton.  The judge stated in his ruling that Jessica had abandoned her child, engaged in conduct that endangered the emotional well-being of the child, and failed to support the child financially in accordance with her ability.  (No request for child support had ever been made or offered up to the court by Rachel throughout the course of the time the children were under her care.)  “I really believe that the court made their decision before I ever set foot in the courtroom,” Jessica says.

Vowing to appeal the case as soon as possible, Jessica received a call from her older sister the day after she received the judge’s ruling.  Their youngest brother, Jamie, had been found dead in an apparent suicide.  Jessica flew to be at her mother’s side and to help make arrangements.  When things had settled down, she discovered that she had missed the window for an appeal, mistakenly believing she had three months to file one.  She didn’t realize that only in family law cases, the deadline to file an appeal is 21 days.  She sought help from every available outlet: Lambda Legal, Transgender Law Center, the ACLU, the Department of Justice, all of whom told her the same thing:  She had been blatantly and maliciously discriminated against with everything timed in just such a way that all the doors would close.  No one could help her.

Months after the judge’s ruling, she received a notice from Rachel’s attorney, timed so that Jessica would receive it exactly on Christmas Eve Day.  It was the court’s order terminating Jessica’s parental rights to Clayton, along with an additional Christmas present:  Pursuant to the mother’s request, the court ordered that Jeffrey A. Butterworth’s name be removed from Clayton’s birth certificate.  The parent/child relationship was now severed – something most family law judges equate with the death penalty, allowed in the most severe of cases such as the child being physically abused to the point of near death.

Why all this back and forth? I wanted to know.  How could Jessica trust this woman who clearly turned out to be so destructive and downright mean, and repeatedly reunite with her, let her take the kids out of state?  The answer is two-fold:  She couldn’t imagine someone being so devious.  Her mind simply does not work that way.  And she really thought she was doing what was in the best interest of her kids.  She had done everything right.  She had been a loving and devoted parent to her children, complied with every request, jumped through all the hoops, and in the end, she still didn’t have her son.

“I can never see him.  I can’t hold him.  I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead, and I’m not allowed to know or contact him in any way until he turns 18.”  She pauses.  “He has no way of knowing how much his daddy loves him.  I just want him to know that I love him, that I never gave up on him,” she says, her blue kohl-rimmed eyes brimming with tears.

Jessica’s mother Sheila is equally stunned by the turn of events.  “She’s a far better motherly person than I am,” she states.  “She’s taught me so much compassion.  [When she was little] Jessica always brought home the damaged things, the snail with the broken shell, the butterfly with a broken wing.  She was such a gentle child.  I am quite certain [the court] would be more accepting of her if she had cancer or was born with three legs.”

Perhaps a happier, well-adjusted, gentle parent is the better parent and should be allowed their relationship with their child, regardless of gender.

But we don’t live in that kind of world.

The Asshole Voice

I've been hesitant to post about this for a few reasons, and finally decided that all those reasons were lame and that being an open book is best.

I'm writing a novel.

But I am first taking a break from this novel to write a screenplay.

The novel was coming along nicely in terms of output.  Those of you with young kids know how difficult it is to get work done when the kids are around, so actual productivity is restrained to the few hours per week during which they are both in school, and is always, always accompanied by a metric ton of laundry.  What was most difficult, however, was processing the emotions that came up in the course of the work.

The novel concerns the suicide of a friend of mine when I was 18, and encompasses some other childhood issues that, upon closer examination, had gone unresolved and unexamined by me.  You do what you have to do to survive and things get swept under the rug.  Until you decide to peek under the rug and then can't stop crying because the job of cleaning under the rug seems insurmountable.  I had to take a break.  I am not one to hide my emotions from the kids, but I can't be a good functional mama if I can't pull myself together day after day.  Processing this crap would have to go back to the subconscious level for the time being.

Then in the course of reaching out to gain particular insight into one of the characters of the novel, I came across a woman whose story moved me so much, I decided to write a movie about her.  This would be a perfect break from dwelling too much on my own past by recreating hers.

Enter The Asshole Voice.

"Who are you to write a screenplay about anyone?" the Asshole Voice demands.  "You've only written two, and those haven't even been made into movies.  You're not a Hollywood player!"

Let me tell you about The Asshole Voice.  Most writers already know The Asshole Voice quite well, but I'm going to call her out anyway for the purpose of exorcising the demons and permitting others to tell their own Asshole Voice to STFU.

The Asshole Voice mocks.  The Asshole Voice scoffs, sneers and belittles.  Sometimes she doesn't even say anything, but I can see her rolling her eyes.  She leaves a silent blank space where a chunk of "hey, nice job!" should go because she doesn't do compliments.  She is unfailingly sarcastic.

My Asshole Voice is female.  She sounds like the voice of a friend, and goes under the guise of "I'm only telling you this for your own good."  But there is nothing good about what she has to contribute.  All she does is take away.

I've managed to write through some projects (this nearly 10-year-old blog, for instance) always with The Asshole Voice in my head.  I will write a piece and just before I hit the publish button, the Asshole Voice squeals, "YOU CALL YOURSELF A WRITER, THAT IS HILARIOUS!!!"

But something happened that has changed my relationship with The Asshole Voice.  I was invited to join a writers' group several months ago.  I had to show up with pages.  And these two seemingly completely unrelated characters that had been pinging around in my head for years started shouting to be heard.  Some kooky part of my brain saw a connection between them.  So I wrote about them.  And I read the first five pages of my novel to this group of strangers with shaking hands, sure that if the group echoed The Asshole Voice, I wouldn't need to go further; the choice would be clear.

But that's not what happened.  No, there were no euphoric proclamations of my brilliance.  There was interested and thoughtful attention to what I had done.  There was emphatic pointing out of things that were strong and resonated.  There were questions about details that weren't clear.  There were genuinely helpful suggestions to squeeze me past places I had felt a little stuck.  But above all else, there was encouragement.  "Keep going!" they said, excitement and love in their voices and hearts.  The Asshole Voice sat in the corner and silently fumed.

During my self-imposed mental health break from the novel, the group was individually and collectively supportive, offering sympathetic ears and endless amounts of warm hugs that I needed so badly.  Some of them had already gone through this and knew exactly what to do and say.

So I'm gearing up to do the screenplay, something I love to do which I haven't done since before the kids were born.  And somehow in the two weeks between writers' group meetings, The Asshole Voice found a way back in.  "This subject matter is too big for you.  You only went to community college.  You cannot possibly do justice to this woman's story.  Why don't you let the professionals handle this."  Now The Asshole Voice has taken a new tack and is approaching me from a pragmatic angle.  But I have to acknowledge that I'm buying her bullshit less and less.  You know what, bitch?  If not me, then who?

Which brings me to this:  The Asshole Voice cannot survive without the energy I give her.  She doesn't show up when something good is happening in my life since she can't be bothered.  I'm going forward with this project, and then I will be going forward with my novel after that.  I'm sure she will have lots of new mockeries to throw my way, but my people have made her hogwash less easy to believe.

I will be posting a piece later today about my latest muse before I start blocking out the scenes for her script and then folding the darks and towels and doling out after school snacks.  But in the meantime, I have to say -- Friends, dump that Asshole Voice!  She (or he) is not serving in your best interest, or in the best interest of what you have to offer the world.  Only YOU can tell this story.

Desiderata

I saw this posted in its entirety on Anne Rice's Facebook page, and keep returning to it and re-reading it.  It is a prose poem written by Max Ehrmann in 1927.  Every single line of this is just so... right.  I wikipedia'd it, and saw in the notes that Morgan Freeman credits the poem with deeply shaping his life.  That explains a lot about him and his appeal.  I think they are words to live and breathe by, so here it is.

Desiderata (Latin: "desired things")

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. 

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. 

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. 
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. 

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Kids' Desk

Wow, it's been awhile since I've done one of these and this was really fun.

The boys are outgrowing their dinky little kid table with mini-chairs, so I have set about trolling craigslist for the old school all-in-one desk and chair hybrid so that each kid might have his own homework/coloring/demise-plotting space.  I actually found a few for sale, but liked this beaut the best, which was a steal at $30:
 It is solid steel, very well-constructed, and surprisingly heavy.  In other words, boy-proof.

I had wanted to do something covered in comic-book-art for them for quite some time, and this thing already came with the perfect, Marvel Comic Red paint.  Some scissors, a tub of Mod Podge, and a Sunday hour to kill, and here is what emerged:





I love how it turned out!  And love the awesome inner dialogue from Superman in this frame:


Now I just need another one like it to do a Batman edition.  Or perhaps Spiderman?  Hmmmm.....